Visitors to Maui, and especially those who sail near Molokini Crater often cross paths with one of the 22 species of seabirds that live in our Hawaiian Islands. Besides the graceful beauty they offer visitors today, seabirds have also played an important role in the history of Hawaii. As some of our first residents they brought the first seeds of plant life to paradise.
Hawaii is the most isolated land mass in the world, and in order for birds to travel here they must be very lightweight, incredibly aerodynamic and be able to fly extremely long distances. It was these birds, the ancient legends say, that ancient Polynesians followed to Hawaii.
Here are a few of the seabirds guests of Kai Kanani often see:
Red Tailed Tropic Bird
Known by the red tail of its name, this average-sized seabird has a white body, a red bill, a red tail and black feet. The Red-Tailed Tropicbird has a 41 inch (104 cm) wingspan and nests in colonies in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. They raise their young in shrubby areas and also nest on cliffs.
Red-Tailed Tropicbirds tend to be solitary feeders. They dive into the water to catch squid and small fish. The Hawaiian name is Koa ‘e Ula. We can define Koa as warrior and Ula as red. It is also possible that Native Hawaiians names this bird for its long red tail which may have reminded them of a red Koa tree.
Red Footed Booby
The Red-Footed Booby is named in Hawaii after the sound of its short call – ‘A. The color of the Red-Footed Booby’s plumage varies – we often see them in a white or brown phase with blue-gray bills and red feet. These birds nest in trees in large colonies on Islands northwest of Molokai. They have a wingspan of about 38 inches (96 cm) and can often be observed following fishing boats, earning them the name Mahi Bird with our local fishermen.
Red-Footed Boobies are incredible divers – they hit the water at amazing speeds in their search for fish and squid.
The Brown Booby is the largest member of the Booby family with a wingspan of about 60 inches (152 cm). It is chocolate brown in color with a white belly. Like the Red-Footed Booby the Brown Booby also nests in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. They tend to lay one egg, which they incubate in a nest made of twigs on the ground.
The Brown Booby travels long distances hunting for fish and squid. After especially long flights the Brown Booby has been known to take a rest stop on boats before continuing on. We find this to be especially true on Kai Kanani – we have often had these birds rest on Kai Kanani II after becoming exhausted from a long flight.
Rescued Wedge-Tailed Shearwater
The Wedge-Tailed Shearwater’s Native Hawaiian name of ‘Ua ‘u kani translates to moaning petrel. Its plumage is a brownish color with a light underside and long ,wedge tail. It has a wingspan of about 40 inches (102 cm).
The Shearwater is monogamous and mates for life. They nest in rocky or sandy areas and raise one chick every year. Both male and female Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters take turns incubating the egg and feeding the hatchling. Should the pair not produce offspring they will separate and find a new partner.
In Molokini strong north winds may blow these fledglings out of their nests. Unfortunately without the proper development of their feathers, they are not able to fly away. If a Shearwater fledgling is spotted it is best to let your Kai Kanani naturalist know and they will contact the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project
Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters can be observed in large flocks floating on the surface where fish have been feeding. Most often they will surface feed, but they are also master divers and can dive to depths over 200 feet (66 meters).
Great Frigate Bird
Great Frigate Bird
The Great Frigate Bird is a one of the great pilots of the Hawaiian Islands. Frigate birds glide on thermals, rarely needing to use their wings. They can stay aloft for a week at a time and have the greatest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird in the world.They are outstanding aerialists and hunt by skimming surface of the water for small fish such as Malolo, but they are often observed harassing other seabirds and stealing food from them. This behavior is the reason their Native Hawaiian name is Iwa –, which means thief.
Great Frigate Birds nest on land in large colonies in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. They raise one egg per year.
Seabirds on Kai Kanani
Great Frigate Bird chasing a Red Footed Booby
There are many more types of seabirds in the Hawaiian Islands some of which are isolated to one area and some more common like the Frigate Bird, which can be found on almost all islands. While sailing with the Kai Kanani, don’t forget to keep an eye out in the sky for what may be flying overhead or even resting on the water. Keep your camera ready for that magical photo and feel free to ask your Kai Kanani naturalist any questions about these fascinating flyers.